KANSAS CITY — Kris Bubic‘s face said it all.
The shocked look followed by a big smile spoke for most in attendance at Kauffman Stadium after watching Nicky Lopez make one of the best throws this season in the fifth inning of Friday night’s 5-3 series-opening win over the Tigers.
“Nicky was Derek Jeter, basically,” Bubic said afterward with a grin.
After speedy center fielder Derek Hill beat out a deep ground ball to Lopez with two outs, Robbie Grossman hit a grounder out of reach of third baseman Hunter Dozier. It rolled into the grass, on its way to be scored as a base hit.
But Lopez had other ideas. The shortstop got there in time to pick up the ball, jump around and — mid-air — make a cannon of a throw to first base for the out.
“I just tried to get it out as quick as possible,” Lopez said. “I was actually fortunate enough to get more on the ball than I thought I was going to get. Then a great scoop by [Carlos] Santana.”
Bubic threw his hands to his head, mouth agape, before smiling as he jogged off the field. It wasn’t the first time his defense had helped him out in this one, and it wouldn’t be the last.
“I’m like, ‘No chance,’” Bubic said. “Then I look over, and the throw was in time. And I was like, ‘Wow, that’s pretty legit right there.’ Just awesome that he could pick me up on that.”
“We know he’s been able to do that in the past at second base,” manager Mike Matheny added. “But to watch him at short and going deep into the hole like that, not many guys make that play.”
Lopez’s throw and three key double plays jolted Bubic to a quality start. The lefty’s six innings of one-run ball, along with homers from Ryan O’Hearn and Santana, gave the Royals their third consecutive win and snapped the Tigers’ seven-game winning streak.
Bubic’s start built off his last outing, when he threw six innings of relief last weekend against the Orioles. The biggest mistake he made against the Tigers was a middle-middle fastball to Willi Castro, who sent it over the left-center fence. But each time Bubic got himself into jams, he pitched his way out of it with help from his infield.
Matheny has urged Royals pitchers to trust their stuff in the zone when they get in those situations, and Bubic doing it Friday showed why.
“For it to really stick, they have to experience it,” Matheny said. “They have to get into a bind and keep the same mindset. Not try to pick and get them to chase, but make good, quality pitches. If they do put it in play, the guys are going to make plays. That can be something that can have a kind of hangover to where they continue to do that.”
After Castro’s homer in the third, Bubic had a runner on first and the top of the Tigers’ lineup coming up. Grossman hit a hard grounder to Dozier. He cleanly fielded it and started the double play with a throw to Whit Merrifield, who made an excellent turn to Santana. Bubic struck out Jonathan Schoop swinging on a changeup, a pitch that Detroit hitters whiffed at eight of the 19 swings it registered on Friday night.
The double play trio did it again for Bubic in the fourth, when the Tigers put runners on the corners with two outs. And for the final act of the night, Bubic had the bases loaded in the sixth after Santana’s fielding error at first base. Zack Short grounded sharply to Lopez, who started the double play that got Bubic out of the inning unscathed.
“Really nice plays by Doz, three of the better turns we’ve seen from Whit this whole season,” Matheny said. “Quick, no wasted movement, and had some zip on the ball.”
The way Bubic pitched kept his defense ready. He continued to trust his curveball in big situations while relying on his changeup for swings and misses. With Danny Duffy and Brady Singer both on the injured list, the Royals need their young starters to fill the void. Bubic is at the top of that list, and he built off the starting pitching momentum that Mike Minor and Brad Keller started in Milwaukee earlier this week.
And good starting pitching, coupled with the defense, can spark wins.
“There’s no doubt,” O’Hearn said. “Those starters set the tone. When they’re throwing strikes, attacking hitters like Bubic was tonight … it’s easy to see how we all feed off that. Keeps the defense going, and it carries over to the offensive side.”
Lopez seemed to downplay his throw after the game, giving the credit to Bubic’s night. But it left an impression on everyone else.